Irani cafés

Quintessential 20th century Bombay? I suppose it is a toss up between the red double-decker buses and the Irani cafés. Which is a good reason to try them in black and white. Generations of students in the late years of the century remember the aura of faded elegance: marble-topped tables, black laquered bent-wood chairs, mirrored walls and high ceilings. Earlier generations memoirized elegant afternoon meetings for tea and cake in these bright rooms. Very few have lasted into the 21st century. When I took my first digital camera into the streets of Mumbai, these were naturally the places I took it to.

Iranis were the second wave of Zoroastrian immigrants to India. They settled in the thriving cosmopolitan port cities of Mumbai and Karachi in the early 20th century. The Iranian ghavehkhane, after transplantation copied the Viennese style, and became Irani cafés. The Iranian chai shirin, sweetened strong tea, infused with cardamom or rose, gave rise to the Irani tea. Iran has a tradition of adding hot water to a strong brew according to taste. In old Irani cafés you could order a khara chai which was stronger, not having the splash of water usually added before serving. And finally, the Irani chai always came to you in a glass.

In my years as a student I would love the berry pulao served up at these places, always accompanied by a shockingly sweet pink raspberry drink made only by Duke. On days when you felt you couldn’t take it, you could replace the drink with the equally shocking Duke’s ginger. At other times there was the bun maska, a small currant bun with generous amounts of butter, or the brun maska, a fresh baked crusty bun with butter. There was the ever-dependable caramel custard, and a whole selection of cakes and biscuits, which you still get from a couple of the Iranis around Metro which are valiantly keeping the 21st century at bay. I must remember to keep them in business today.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.


    1. The first twenty years of the 20th century seem to have been amazing days for Karachi Mumbai, Shanghai, Hong Kong: rich port cities with trade connections around the world. Attracted a lot of people from across the world.

      Liked by 3 people

  1. From those photos and the description, this looks so similar to the India coffee House I used to visit in Bangalore. Different food but very similar setup. And the black and white photos have captured the ambience perfectly. Great places to hang around with tea / coffee and friends and gossip.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. These are beautiful, evocative photos, especially the first with the man kneeling sweeping up something from the floor. Personal taste — the color photos work better for me. I wish I were up to painting the first one. I love it.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, I’ll have to get my own then.
        Please don’t tell me that the street vendors of newspapers have disappeared, too, or my whole image of India, formed by travel reports from the 1950s, will be shattered.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Irani Cafes are one of my favourite things about Mumbai and my son *adores* them. We have nothing like them here and I am sorry for that.

    Am I correct in thinking that some of the first few photos are from Kyani & Co. in South Mumbai?

    Liked by 2 people

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